‘Goldenseal,’ Marie Hummel’s novel about rekindling friendships in LA

Book review


By Maria Hummel
Counterpoint: 240 pages, $27

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Maria Hummel has long been interested in finding flaws in her characters’ narratives. Her first two novels, both set in periods of great turmoil (the American Civil War and World War II), closely follow individuals forced to reckon with how much they know, how that knowledge affects their lives, and what they can and should do with it . . Her third novel, Still Lives, explores how women have owned their stories, traumas and artistic impulses, and its sequel, Lesson in Red, explores women’s agency, both bodily and intellectual.

Hummel’s new, fifth novel, «Goldenseal« returns to many of these themes, but here the author narrows her focus to a single friendship between two very different women. The flawed narrative in this case is the relationship, and Hummel’s bigger question is how — or if — she can survive the expectations women faced then and now.

Lacey and Edith, 70 and 71 respectively, had not seen or spoken to each other for 44 years when they finally got together in 1990. The novel opens with Edith arriving in Los Angeles for the first time since their breakup. The city has changed immensely in four decades, and Edith is newly fascinated, even though her destination is one of its rare surviving buildings, an old luxury hotel in downtown LA (modeled after the real Millennium Biltmore). When she enters, she is overcome with nostalgia:

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“(T)A view of the bar across from the lobby, with its sparkling bottles, an empty stool. To her left, the sound of Italian, a man greeting a woman he clearly admired. There is an intoxicating possibility in the hotel that you could step from one life into another just by walking through these doors. It’s like breathing champagneshe thought when she believed that wealth could change her.

A woman with straight blonde hair in a short-sleeved denim blouse poses with a field in the background.

«Goldenseal,» Marie Hummel’s fifth novel, continues to expand on themes of female autonomy and conflicted narratives.

(Karen Pike)

Lacey’s father once owned a hotel where she now lives as a recluse in a luxury suite. She he makes Edith wait downstairs for several hours before allowing her to get up, in a power move that betrays Lacey’s sense of helplessness. After all, she’s stuck in place, her life reduced to a library full of alternate realities for her to explore; Edith, on the other hand, left LA and became the principal of a private school. That’s one of the great divides between them: not just the decisions they made, but the decisions they each thought they had access to.

During Edith’s long wait in the hotel lobby, readers are introduced to Lacey’s story, including her early life in Prague, her parents’ decision to emigrate to New York, her father’s first hotel, her mother’s temporary abandonment, and her fateful meeting with Edith at summer camp when they are both girls on the verge of puberty. But what remains mysterious is the rift between them, the reason why fast friends have become strangers with different stories of what happened.

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Once Edith and Lacey are finally in the same room, the novel’s quiet but effective tension builds as they begin to tell each other about what has happened in their lives since the last time they were together, before finally unfolding the stories of what separated them. . Much of the novel concerns their long conversation, but we are largely limited to Lacey’s view, privy to her thoughts, but not Edith’s. This transparency of one character and obscuration of the other is fitting because Edith has always been somewhat mysterious to Lacey, her difficult upbringing mostly private, her desires often left unspoken.

It slowly becomes clear that at the center of the women’s feud is seemingly a man: Cal, who was Lacey’s husband until his death in a plane crash. The premise of «Goldenseal» is based, Hummel writes in his afterword, on «Embers» by Sándor Márai. which similarly follows two men who meet four decades after the event that disrupted their friendship. The event concerns a woman who, as Hummel writes, “isn’t quite real. Instead, she is a symbol of their greatest passions—loving her as she was—and their most colossal failure: loving each other.” Hummel flips the script, tracing the pain to Edith and Lacey’s fundamental misunderstanding of each other’s desires, as well as their differing views on the power of female friendship.

"goldenseal," by Maria Hummel

Edith once wrote a script “about friendship. Two girls, one rich, one poor, in a border town, facing life together. She tells Lacey that maybe it was the only story she had to tell, the only story she wanted to tell. Lacey rebuts her: “No, I think you wrote the script because you knew that true, committed friendship between women is a fantasy that life shatters. No matter how strong we are, how hard we love, life keeps getting stronger. True friendship can only exist in a dream world where you have conjured it.”

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Many women today would disagree with Lacey’s bitter outlook, but she is a product of a time when her selfhood was intertwined with her ability to marry well, support her husband’s ambitions, and have children. Hummel draws her sympathetically, empathetically, even though she proves through Edith’s life path that other choices were possible.

«Goldenseal» is a novel about action and friendship, whose questions reverberate far beyond the boundaries of its two protagonists and their particular time and place. Haunting and tragic, yet it lands on a hopeful note. “I think a lot of times people grow up. Not just once,” Edith tells Lacey at one point, and while the statement refers to the younger days of both characters, the conversation in which it appears is another moment of growth—much overdue, perhaps, but valuable nonetheless.

Masad is a book and culture critic and the author of «All My Mother’s Lovers».

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